Mike Seeger (1933-2009) was a musician, documentarian, scholar, and one of the founding members of the influential folk revival group the New Lost City Ramblers. He spent more than fifty years collecting, performing, and commemorating the culture and folk music of white and black southerners, which he called “music from the true vine.” Bill Malone explores the life and musical contributions of the folk artist in the fascinating biography Music From the True Vine: Mike Seeger’s Life & Musical Journey. The following is an excerpt from the book. (pp.53-55)
The Baltimore period proved to be one of the pivotal phases of Mike Seeger’s life. Between 1954 and 1958, he became immersed in the city’s thriving bluegrass music scene and, with his introduction to Hazel Dickens and her family, became intimately involved for the first time with the working-class southerners who had made and preserved the music he loved. Profiting from his experiences playing and listening to bluegrass music in the clubs and house parties of Baltimore, Mike also made his first major contributions to the American folk music scene when he documented the emerging bluegrass phenomenon in two historic LPs made for the Folkways label.
The Korean War was raging when Mike turned eighteen in August 1951, and he was confronted immediately with the prospect of military service. Influenced by Woodstock Country School counselor and teacher Mounir Sa’adah, Mike had already made a decision to seek an alternative option. He had even toyed with the idea of refusing to register for the draft, but his father advised against such action. When Mike decided to seek conscientious objector status, he hadn’t realized that he was following in his father’s footsteps. Charles supported Mike’s decision and wrote a lengthy letter on behalf of his son on November 23, 1952, citing the all-American credentials of the Seeger family and also recalling his own history of war resistance during his years at Berkeley. While seeking guidance from the American Friends Service Committee, the Fellowship for Reconciliation, and other pacifist organizations, Mike explored a number of options for public service, but most of them, including religious groups such as the Church of the Brethren, offered little or no money. Charles tried to get him a job in the library of a conservatory of music in Cleveland, but Mike interviewed poorly. He also rejected a job at the Crownsville State Hospital in Maryland because the prospect of having to deal with mentally disturbed criminals was frightening to the impressionable young man. After initially rejecting Mike’s petition for conscientious objector status, his local board finally relented and agreed that his service could be postponed during the last months of his mother’s illness.
Mike chose to perform his alternative service at the Mount Wilson Tuberculosis Hospital near Pikeville, Maryland, a state-run facility about ten miles northwest of Baltimore. That fateful decision ultimately permitted him to meet Hazel Dickens and her family and to become a part of one of the most vigorous arenas of bluegrass music in the nation.[. . . ]
During his two years at Mount Wilson, Mike was usually confined to his tiny room at the tuberculosis hospital, but he did make occasional forays to Pete’s cabin in Beacon, at least one to Washington Square in New York, and several to the country music parks in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Musicians at the hospital also started contacting Mike and responding to his inquiries about performance. At least a couple of his musical partners were Amish and Mennonite young men who had also chosen alternative service during the war. Fellow employees Ruth and Onza Cole, on the other hand, from northeastern Tennessee, were part of the large throng of southern migrants who had chosen Baltimore as their escape from rural poverty. They introduced Mike to the music of Molly O’Day, the soulful Kentucky singer who only a few years earlier had been one of the brightest stars on the Columbia label and the voice for whom Hank Williams had written some of his earliest songs. The three spent many happy hours singing from Onza’s Molly O’Day songbook, in which Mike was delighted to find such chestnuts as “Barbara Allen” and “Poor Ellen Smith.”[. . . ]
Mike’s most important contact, though, came one day when someone recommended that he meet one of the patients upstairs who played music. This was Robert Dickens, one of the eleven children of Sarah and Hillary “H.N.” Dickens (a Primitive Baptist preacher and supplier of timber for the coal mines). The entire Dickens family had sought refuge in Baltimore after fleeing the decline of the coal industry in their native Mercer County, West Virginia. Robert had lost part of his right index finger in an accident, but he nevertheless played the mandolin in an affecting hillbilly and pre-bluegrass ragtime style on such tunes as “Natural Bridge Blues” and “John Henry.” One night, Robert invited Mike to come down to his parents’ apartment on Eutaw Place in one of the little “Appalachian” enclaves of Baltimore. Robert’s brother Arnold was there, and he became Mike’s closest friend and musical companion among the Dickens boys. Father H.N., who had never let his Primitive Baptist affiliation interfere with his love for old-time country music, was persuaded to pick a few numbers, in drop-thumb style, on the five-string banjo. This was one of the first of Mike’s many picking and singing sessions with the Dickens family and the beginning of his relationship with Hazel Dickens.
Bill C. Malone is professor of history emeritus at Tulane University. He is author of Music From the True Vine: Mike Seeger’s Life & Musical Journey and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 12: Music.
Excerpt from MUSIC FROM THE TRUE VINE: MIKE SEEGER’S LIFE AND MUSICAL JOURNEY by Bill C. Malone. Copyright © 2011 by the University of North Carolina Press.[pssssst: If you enjoyed this excerpt, you may want to tune in to UNC Press blog for our next Free Book Friday, which will be December 2!]
- I saw the letter, or a copy of it, at Mike Seeger’s home in Lexington. In this letter, Charles even alluded to Mayflower ancestry.↩
- Mount Wilson State Hospital and Sanitarium was established in 1925 and closed its doors in 1981. Secluded on about 200 acres, the abandoned building gained notoriety as a haunted structure. It is now the site of North Oakes Retirement Community.↩
- Information on the Seeger-Dickens relationship came from interviews with Mike Seeger and Hazel Dickens. It is also mentioned in a variety of publications. I wrote about the relationship earlier in a book coauthored with Hazel Dickens, Working Girl Blues: The Life and Music of Hazel Dickens (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005). Hillary Dickens recorded several banjo pieces for Mike Seeger that are located in Mike’s collection at the Southern Folklife Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.↩